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  • Mark Smith

Cold Road to Anna

Dernière mise à jour : 12 janv. 2020

You needn’t travel far from Paris to see how the country towns and smaller cities of France are shrinking, their economies strangled by disappearing industries, their populations ageing, their real estate crumbling, their hopes fading if not gone altogether. Such is the day, that most of the goods once made in France are now manufactured elsewhere and shipped back to these same towns, on whose outskirts they are sold in giant emporia that have popped up like cancerous boils on a dying man.

The good news is that many suffering Frankish burgs of this sort have managed, one way or another, to redress their historical centers and maintain the charm that put them on tourist maps in the first place.

Attention to detail must be a hallmark of the Sénonais, as inhabitants of Sens are called. Just look at the town's centerpiece, the St Etienne de Sens cathedral, whose construction began in 1135 and ended in 1534, 399 years later. But they got it right in the end.

One such agglomeration is the ancient Roman city of Sens, 120 kilometers southeast of Paris, where I got off the train with my touring bike one leaden day last December. Northern France was in a cold snap, with daytime temperatures just above 0ºC. Twenty passengers got down and shuffled off the platform, leaving me to my shoe adjustments and a troubling tribunal of cobalt clouds overhead. I had roughly three hours to make Bouilly, my destination, before a blackout would shut me down. The day felt young but was already declining. I climbed aboard and applied my gams to the crank.

There are two ways south from Sens. The more obvious involves following the mostly flat main road along the Yonne River. This route, picturesque most of the way, sends you through a straggling series of riverside towns, the largest of which, Laroche-Migennes, long one of France’s three most important train switching yards, has aged poorly. The tracks remain but the trains are gone. You don’t want to blow a tire here on a Sunday.

The second possible route describes an arc through the hills east of the river via a network of farm roads. I’d done the river road more than once already. Today I’d go for the hills.

With some 25,000 souls, Sens is no Shanghai, but nonetheless imposes a gauntlet of corrugated commercial outlets on the hapless cyclist who skirts its perimeter. Persevere for another 10 minutes, however, and you find yourself in the fields. This is where some careful initial choosing must take place to ensure you get on a small road that is going more or less in your direction. I made my decision in a sleepy village called Malay-le-Grand, memorizing the next couple of town names so I could follow the signs without stopping to consult my phone map for directions. One thing the French are pretty good at is road signage. Almost every town will have a sign pointing to the nearest towns, so if you can remember which one you’re headed for, you’re good.

Woods old and newer adorn the manicured hills like high-styled tufts of fur on a show poodle.

It’s an easy but steady climb from Sens to the highest hills that separate it from where I was headed. Those hills aren’t high, but this year they were high enough to host snow, which grew thicker and thicker, punctuating the region’s otherwise attractive natural features, all the way up to my summit for the day—a dead silent village called Villechétive, which towers over the area at a dizzying 258 meters above sea level.

A shivering tree marked the highest point along my trail that day—258 meters (846 feet) above sea level.

A taillight would’ve made sense by the time I reached Anna’s house, 25 kilometers down the hills and over the river. The leaden firmament had darkened two degrees by the time I put my mount in the barn for the night and entered the kitchen, where Anna stood smiling with a wooden spoon in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other. The climb, cold and miles disappeared as she poured me a glass.

Some 25 years have gone by since Jean and Anna moved from New York City to this nondescript farm town in northern Burgundy. One glance at Bouilly (pronounced boo-yee), with its two ramshackle streets, and you know: It was a big leap from the Upper East Side. But they were enthusiastic and set to work making a life. Soon Anna had a baby girl, then a boy. If you’re not familiar with French red tape and administrative rigidity, you’ll have no idea the work Anna did to earn a degree to teach English in the schools of nearby Auxerre. Jean, an artist and photographer, won a few photo book projects and refurbished the house.

The kids have left home for higher studies now, and Jean died last year. So Anna, a native of Queens, keeps teaching in Auxerre and living in Bouilly. This is her life, and it makes her smile.

It was even colder the next morning, but at least the sun was out. I had 60 kilometers to cover to get to the house of some other friends of mine, deeper in Burgundy. I didn’t quite know how I was going to fight off this cold, but you can’t think about that kind of thing. At least I didn’t have to find a farm road. I was on one.


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